During the quiet hours of early morning darkness on Nov. 16, a 32-story, citrus-colored rocket blasted into space from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Leaving behind a wake of flames and smoke, it brightened the night sky with a synthetic sunset, propelling a little white spacecraft toward Earth’s glowing companion: the moon.
At last, the Artemis I lunar mission had lifted off.
For the next several weeks, the Hershey Kiss-shaped spacecraft, Orion, flew through the vastness of space. It passed through our planet’s atmosphere, traveled along in Earth’s orbit for a short period, then plunged directly toward lunar orbit. Once Orion reached the moon’s gravitational whirlpool, descending down to about as close as 80 miles from the surface and completing two flybys, it snapped galleries of awesome images and captured hours of breathtaking videos while completing an array of scientific duties.
We received a re-creation of Apollo 8’s Earthrise and a complementary portrait called Earthset, both named for their resemblance to the sun’s daily hello and goodbye to us — but with Earth in its place. We got to gawk at an evocative, black-and-white piece that fits everything we’ve ever truly known into a single rectangle. And we were even blessed with a photograph I’m still not entirely sure I’ve grasped: a shot of the Earth, moon and Orion itself, serendipitously imitating 1995’s iconic Apollo 13 movie poster.
Then, on Sunday, Orion returned home.
“NASA’s Orion spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, west of Baja California, at 9:40 a.m. PST Sunday after a record-breaking mission, traveling more than 1.4 million miles on a path around the Moon and returning safely to Earth, completing the Artemis I flight test,” the agency said in a press release.
Yet Artemis I was just the beginning of NASA’s epic lunar program. So now, you might be wondering, what’s next?
“When we think about Artemis, we focus a lot on the moon,” Reid Wiseman, chief astronaut at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in an Aug. 5 press conference. “But I just want everybody in the room and everybody watching to remember our sights are not set on the moon. Our sights are set clearly on Mars.”
Though the vehicle commissioned for Artemis I — formally named the Space Launch System and also renowned as the most powerful rocket in the world — didn’t usher astronauts to the moon’s surface this time around, it was kind of NASA’s golden ticket to new adventures in outer space.
Showing off the brilliant orange hue of its insulated spray-on coating, Artemis I’s SLS helped carry instruments to lunar orbit that gathered vital information for the Artemis II mission, which will bring humans along to orbit the lunar sphere. In turn, Artemis II will pave the way for Artemis III, a potential 2025 mission that may, at last, add more boot prints to the powdery gray soil, alongside those imprinted decades ago by Apollo astronauts. And that’s just an overview of the first three steps of NASA’s Artemis odyssey.
Eventually, this program is poised to let NASA accomplish thrilling feats like landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon, building a lunar base camp, constructing a spaceship in lunar orbit, connecting an off-world internet, and even laying the groundwork for a future in which humankind settles Mars, as Wiseman emphasized.
You can think of Artemis I as an extremely high-stakes precursor to everything that comes next for American lunar exploration, founded on everything that came before.
Before launching into space, the SLS even got situated for its big day on the octagonal launchpad 39B, poetically standing where NASA’s Saturn V rocket once stood for Apollo 10. Not only did Apollo 10 christen 39B, but it also illuminated the way for Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong‘s and Buzz Aldrin’s historic landing on the glowing orb (with Michael Collins orbiting patiently in the command module).
“To all of us that gaze up at the moon, dreaming of the day humankind returns to the lunar surface,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a prelaunch press conference, “folks, we’re here — we are going back. And our journey begins with Artemis I.”
But prior to getting into some future hopes and dreams for the Artemis program, let’s lay out what exactly Artemis I achieved during its epic space travels.
“The splashdown of the Orion spacecraft — which occurred 50 years to the day of the Apollo 17 Moon landing — is the crowning achievement of Artemis I,” Nelson said in Sunday’s press release. “From the launch of the world’s most powerful rocket to the exceptional journey around the Moon and back to Earth, this flight test is a major step forward in the Artemis Generation of lunar exploration.”
Artemis I 101
There were two major components to the Artemis I space explorer: an apricot SLS rocket and a conical, white spacecraft dubbed Orion. Prior to launch, Orion topped the SLS like the spire of a castle tower. Within Orion, there was a lot going on.
It was basically the cabin car of Artemis I.
NASA strapped in Amazon Alexa, TV character Shaun the Sheep, a few Girl Scout space science badges and other pop culture icons into uncannily retro craft. And on the other hand, the agency filled it with some hard-core science equipment, such as satellites, radiation detectors, human stand-ins, freeze-dried yeast for biology experiments and miscellaneous data collection tools.
During the trip, all of Orion’s fun bric-a-brac was baptized into the extraterrestrial space club, science mechanisms detailed what the trajectory looks and feels like, and the humanlike mannequins reacted to dangerous aspects of space travel, like radiation absorption, for assessment on the ground.
“At its farthest distance during the mission, Orion traveled nearly 270,000 miles from our home planet, more than 1,000 times farther than where the International Space Station orbits Earth, to intentionally stress systems before flying crew,” NASA said. In other words, Orion stayed in space longer than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has done without docking to a space station — and, while in a distant lunar orbit, Orion surpassed the record for distance traveled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans. Previously, Apollo 13 held that record having flown 249,205 miles from Earth.
If you’re into the technicalities, a close look at the SLS launch sequence can be found here.
Plus, not only was Orion built to venture farther than any spacecraft made for humans has ever flown, it was constructed to come home faster and hotter than any spacecraft has before. The plan was for it to hit the Earth’s atmosphere at 32 times the speed of sound.
“During re-entry, Orion endured temperatures about half as hot as the surface of the Sun at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Within about 20 minutes, Orion slowed from nearly 25,000 mph to about 20 mph for its parachute-assisted splashdown,” NASA said.
The speed bit was especially important because the SLS and Orion design are expected to support future missions written to help humans access Mars one day, and maybe even deep space. According to Nelson, if Orion were to return to Earth from a Martian expedition, it might reach staggering velocities around 36 times the speed of sound.
As Orion began ascending from our planet back in November, NASA started to broadcast a livestream of its perspective, which marked the start of our lovely Artemis I pool of images and videos.
Artemis I’s launch itself followed a long roller coaster ride of challenges. At first, it had been planned for Aug. 29, but an engine issue forced the attempt to be scrubbed. Then try No. 2, on Sept. 2, was also a no-go. Lucky No. 3, of course, was a tremendous success — but still was the product of multiple years of delays and wads of extra money.
Nonetheless, Artemis I’s starry excursion has been a sight for the ages.
“With splashdown, we have successfully operated Orion in the deep space environment, where it exceeded our expectations, and demonstrated that Orion can withstand the extreme conditions of returning through Earth’s atmosphere from lunar velocities,” Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said in Sunday’s press release.
In the coming days, NASA will bring Orion to shore, where technicians will offload the spacecraft from shipboard and transfer it by truck back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once it’s at Kennedy, teams will open the hatch and unload several payloads, including Commander Moonikin Campos, the space biology experiments, Snoopy and the official flight kit. Then the capsule and its heat shield will undergo testing and analysis over the course of several months.
Sick, then what?
Considering how much I write about the moon, I’ve often wondered what might’ve happened if NASA continued its Apollo program — uninhibited by Cold War tensions and budget-cut setbacks.
Could there’ve been an international space station orbiting the moon? Might there have been lunar settlements? Or perhaps astronauts could’ve ridden from crater to crater in ATVs? Well, in a way, we might be about to find out. Artemis is sort of picking up where its Greek-namesake twin, Apollo, left off. (Apollo was a god, Artemis a goddess.) “This is now the Artemis generation,” Nelson said.
I mean, assuming everything goes to plan with all stages of Artemis, here are some things to look forward to in the coming decade or so. (OK, but to reiterate, a lot has to go to plan for any of this to happen.)
The lunar gateway
With the help of international space agencies from at least 18 other countries, NASA signed the Artemis Accords, which basically underscore principles required for peaceful space cooperation. Part of this agreement gave rise to an idea called the lunar gateway. The lunar gateway is a planned small space station that’ll sit in lunar orbit and serve as a solar-powered communication hub, science laboratory, habitation module for astronauts, holding center for rovers or robots and other such things. It’s like a moon ISS.
Already, in fact, NASA has sent a microwave oven-size satellite named Capstone to lunar orbit to tease out relevant information for the Gateway.
“Gateway’s capabilities for supporting sustained exploration and research in deep space include docking ports for a variety of visiting spacecraft, space for crew to live and work, and on-board science investigations to study heliophysics, human health, and life sciences, among other areas,” NASA said.
We’ve also got the prospect of the LunaNet, which’ll serve the navigation, networking and other communication responsibilities of Artemis astronauts. “Astronaut safety and wellbeing are key concerns of the Artemis missions,” NASA’s search and rescue office mission manager for national affairs, Cody Kelly, said in a statement. “Using LunaNet’s navigation services, LunaSAR will provide location data to NASA distress beacons should contingencies arise.”
Lunar terrain vehicles, or LTVs, are also planned for the future. These sort of roofless Jeep-like rovers will transport Artemis astronauts around the lunar South Pole when they get there. This invention is still very much in progress — understandably.
“Most people do a lot of research before buying a car,” Nathan Howard, project manager for the LTV at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in a statement. “We’re doing extensive research for a modern space vehicle that will be provided by industry. As we plan for long-term exploration of the Moon, the LTV won’t be your grandfather’s Moon Buggy used during the Apollo missions.”
Moon base camp
Perhaps the most exhilarating part of all of this is that if Artemis works out, we’ll have a legitimate base camp on the moon.
“To give astronauts a place to live and work on the Moon, the agency’s Artemis Base Camp concept includes a modern lunar cabin, a rover and even a mobile home,” NASA said. “Early missions will include short surface stays, but as the base camp evolves, the goal is to allow crew to stay at the lunar surface for up to two months at a time.”
Two months at a time, the agency said. It’s simply surreal to consider that the next many years could be filled with the level of lunar exploration that NASA believes the Artemis program can achieve. It might be why the punchy motto of these missions inspires goose bumps.
“We are going.”
Well, now, I guess it’s more accurate to say “We’ve gone, and are going again.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX Digital and is published from a syndicated feed.)